Magic. Loves. Lies. Betrayal. High school is murder.
Seventeen-year-old Jess Flowers has changed into something dark, something powerful, something more than human since moving to rural nowhere Salt Creek. She isn’t alone. It’s a town with a dangerous secret. In Salt Creek, people aren’t what they seem.
Gorgeous outcast Billy Combs is the only one willing to help her, but his troubled past may be darker than he’s let on.
A super-charged killer stalks the town, zeroing in on Jess. Can she tame the mysterious powers surging within her and identify the killer before it’s her turn to die?
Murder, lies, betrayal and supernatural powers collide in this ya paranormal romance trilogy for fans of Beautiful Creatures, X-Men, Twilight, and Vampire Diaries.
Winner, 2016 Romance Writers of America Joyce Henderson Contest for Young Adult romance. (Under its working title, Girl with the Sun on her Heart.)
Chapter 1 — The End
The back of my skull split open and my brains spilled onto the stone. Blood filled my mouth, choking me. I tried to breathe, but there was no air, only blood. I’m drowning. The voices slipped away, leaving only the sound of my fading heart beat. Thump… Thump….Thump…. Soon, it was gone, too.
My feet touched down on the ground. I stood at the very edge of a cliff, peering into the darkness below. I could just make out the shape of a body. My body. With long brown hair. My hair. There I was, broken on the rocks at the bottom of the ravine in a pool of blood. “No. I can’t be—”
Dead. I didn’t say it out loud. It couldn’t be true. I felt alive. I was standing on earth. I still had a body. I could feel cool, damp moss under my toes. I was thinking, talking. Yet deep down, I knew. “So that’s it then.” The truth seeped in as the words came out. “I’m dead.”
He’d planned to kill me all along. He’d done it before. I was next on his list. I should have seen it coming.
“You’re running out of time.” A familiar voice came from behind me. I turned and saw his face. Dad. My body filled with fiery joy. “We have either a few minutes together or forever, but you have to decide now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go back, and you can change the course of all of their lives.”
All of their lives. I looked into the ravine. The killer wrestled with his next victim, my friend, below me.
The dreams finally made sense. I could no longer pretend to be an ordinary girl. Yes, I was still Jesse Flowers. I was still seventeen. Yes, I was dead, but Salt Creek had given me many gifts. This was my chance to use them. “Dad. What should I do?”
He answered with one word: Fight.
Chapter 2 — Funeral
Five weeks before my own death, I stood in the Hollygrove Cemetery about to lower Dad into a tidy rectangle cut into the hot August earth. The police said he died fast. A quick pop over the guardrail and into a light pole and it was all over. Nothing suspicious. It was only dark, late, and raining.
The priest made a cross in the air in front of us, and the funeral was over. The sea of mourning strangers undulated, chatting and shaking hands. Ladies with wrinkled hands and white hair descended on my brother Jack and I, marveling at how much we’d grown and telling us this tragedy had purpose. Everything happens for a reason, dear, they said.
Gramps did his best to shield us from them. He put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder.
“Jess, it’s time to head back to the house,” Mom said. Tears had turned her eyes pink. Jack hunched next her. Today was the first time I’d noticed how much he looked like a wiry fifteen-year-old version of Dad. His shoulders had grown wider. His hair was almost black.
“No. I’m staying with Dad.”
Mom’s lips pursed, ready to object, but she held back. Arguing at Dad’s funeral would be too unseemly. We’d fought nonstop last night, when she told us we were staying. Staying. In Salt Creek, Ohio, population two thousand, if you include the cows. She and Dad had agreed to come home if tragedy ever struck, she’d said. It did, so this is home now, sweetie. What a joke. California was home. Last week, I was surfing in the Pacific and hanging out at the boardwalk. Salt Creek was the place where I’d spent summers when I was little, then every Christmas since first grade. It was special, sure. Gramps was here, but it wasn’t home and it never would be. She’d see. But Mom didn’t want to hear that, so now I’d lost my Dad and my whole life, too.
“Jess can stay here with him,” Gramps said, determined to keep the peace. “I’ll come back and get her when he’s all finished.”
His eyes shot to a man hovering near a rusty silver pick-up truck. He was the caretaker, the one who pushed the heavy clay dirt over the town’s loved ones after the crowds had gone.
Mom chose not to fight. She shrugged and shuffled off to the car. The mourners followed. Their departure was marked by the distant clap of car doors, the crunch of tires navigating the narrow gravel path back to the road, until the last car pulled out and the cemetery fell quiet.
I slumped into one of the folding chairs circling the grave. My insides split open and tears bubbled out of me, endless, as if fed by a spring. The veneer of strength I’d carefully constructed to get me through the funeral crumbled.
“Dad. I can’t live without you.” I shook, my voice choppy like an ice cube crunched in a blender. This was my last chance to be near him. “I love you. I miss you so much.”
I’d pay any price for one last piggyback, like the ones he gave me to the breakfast table when I didn’t want to get out of bed in elementary school. I’d give anything to see his face at the finish line cheering me on, like he had at every race I’d ever run. But no. He’s dead. It’s over.
Dad was my anchor. Without him, I was unmoored in a churning, desolate sea, powerless against the tide. Sinking. I held my arms tight against my belly, reigning in the shakes, steeling against the grief.
“It’s not fair.”
None of it was. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Not to Dad, not to anyone. I squinted into the morning sun. The cemetery was a high hill, a treeless bump of green grass overlooking farms in the valley below. No cities. No ocean. No nothing. So this is home now. Yeah right. Not without Dad.
“Miss?” It was the caretaker, a giant blond man with rippling arms and a chest like a muscle-clad whiskey barrel. “I’d like to cover him up now.”
He glanced at the shiny gray casket covered with white roses. “Unless you need more time. You can have as long as you need.”
“It’s okay. I’m ready.” I lied. I stood up and pressed my palm against the coffin. It was warm from the sun. “I hope we get to be together again someday. I love you.”
The caretaker went off to gather his things, and Gramps’ old yellow pickup truck rumbled through the gravel, peeking in and out of a cloud of bronze-colored dust. I tromped toward the road, dodging flowers and headstones. I looked back at Dad one more time before he was planted in the earth forever, covered by dirt like a seed. “Wish me luck, Dad. My exciting new life in Salt Creek has officially begun.”
Lightning cut through the sunny blue sky. Whoa. Where did that come from? A black shadow stepped out from behind a mausoleum at the other end of the cemetery. My heart skipped a couple more beats. A boy with disheveled black hair, wearing a hoodie with a strange silvery-white design on the front, stared right at me. I wiped the sticky film of tears from my eyes. Thunder rumbled, and when I looked again, the boy was gone. Weird.
“Jess.” Gramps called from behind me. “The others are waiting.”
I slid onto the hot vinyl bench seat and yanked the truck door shut. “Did you see lightning?” Surely I imagined the flash and the boy. No one could disappear that fast. “Is it going to storm?”
I examined the sky. Clear, not a single cloud, and blue like watercolor brush strokes. Gramps pushed the gear shift in hard, and we lurched onto the road. “No storms today,” he said, “but lightning brings other things in Salt Creek.”
Gramps pulled his truck into his driveway, which was really a half-mile jumble of gravel and potholes. His white farmhouse backed up to a hillside packed with tall trees. It was one of a handful of houses just like it lining the far rim of a wide, flat valley—all about a hundred years old, two stories with white-washed wood siding, wrap-around porches with creaky old swings, and corn fields for front lawns. Dozens of cars swarmed around the barn by the house. The strangers from the cemetery. They were here to chat with us over ambrosia salad while we barely held our insides together.
I hopped out of the truck and ran my hands over my dress, smoothing out the wrinkles, stalling. I wished a steel rod would grow up through my spine to make me strong. But no. I was so hollow I could probably rattle. Funny. I used to think I had real problems, like losing a race at a track meet, or the boy I liked didn’t like me. Until Dad.
Gramps noticed my dread. “Be nice, then run away the first chance you get.” The tail ends of his sunburned lips curled into a smile. He’d given me a gift: permission to hide in my room. He stood at the back door on the brick walkway intersecting Gramma’s garden. I used to come out here to watch bumblebees hop from flower to flower, their fat bodies bending the delicate stems all the way to the ground. I’d watched the bees with Gramma. With Dad.
“You’ll make it through,” Gramps said. “I promise.”
He didn’t say it’d be okay. Not once. Gramps knew better than to lie.
I followed him inside. Mom stood in the kitchen, a cheerful sunny room of lemon-yellow cabinets with matching gingham curtains. She drifted between small groups of strangers. They looked like crows, perched around the house in their joyless black clothes. Mom eventually landed with three tiny elderly women and the sheriff, who jutted up through the center of them like a tree. I slid unnoticed to the living room, then to the narrow staircase leading to the bedrooms.
Home free—except a perky redhead in a flower-print dress and strappy sandals sat at the top of the stairs, arms crossed, blocking my way, looking right at me. She waited for me to say something, but I wasn’t sure if there was a polite way to say move before the strangers get me. Their polite chit chat and sad-for-me eyes will crush my soul.
“You don’t remember me, do you? Well, nice to see you, too, Jess.” The redhead rolled her eyes. “Let me give you a hint. Hmmm. The blue plastic swimming pool in my backyard only held water because it was duct-taped together. I was in my absolute favorite bathing suit of all time: The pink one with the fabulous yellow sequin dots. Oh, and I was blonde. But, you know, that’s easy to change.” She twirled a piece of fire-red hair around her index finger.
“Vic? Is that you?” Of course she’d come. Every summer until first grade, we were inseparable, pretending we were mermaids as we splashed around in that crappy plastic pool. Our families’ farms had shared this valley for two hundred years. By Salt Creek standards, we were family. I should have recognized her by her dress. Vic had only ever worn clothes that sparkled, a habit she clearly hadn’t outgrown.
“It’s Vickie now. It seems less boyish. Anyway, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you.” She clip-clopped down the stairs and hugged me. “I’m totally amped you’re back. We’re gonna have a blast.”
She let go of me then cleared the foot out of her mouth. “I mean, I’m not happy about why you’re back, obviously, that sucks, but we’re gonna make the best of it, okay? I’ve got big plans for us now that you’ve moved here. Ohmigod you’re gonna love it. We’re gonna have so much fun. Senior year, right? That is if we survive this party. It’s the lamest. Way too many old people. Seriously. It’s like God’s waiting room down there.”
“Wait. How did you know we were moving here?” News couldn’t have spread that fast. Mom only told me last night.
“Gramps told us last week you guys were moving back.”
“But— ” No. Impossible. Dad was alive then.
“Anyway.” Vic cut me off. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at noon.”
“We have plans. Big ones. The kind that just might change your life.”